Korean Home Run King
A Taste of Big Mac in Asia
It sounds—to a point—like a list of questions from a September 1998 Mark McGwire press conference: How many home runs can one man hit? By how many can he break a seemingly unbreakable record? Is he the greatest power hitter of all time? And why does he like eating eels?
Lee Seung-yup, 23, the Samsung Lions' first baseman and South Korea's answer to McGwire, has been living in the national spotlight since late June, when he began a serious charge at the Korea Baseball Organization's single-season home run record. Last year Lee and the OB Bears' Tyrone Woods engaged in a historic home run race before Lee finished at 38 and Woods, a native of Florida who spent 10 seasons in the U.S. minor leagues, set the league record of 42.
This season, however, while Woods has been plagued by injuries, Lee has soared. On Aug. 2, in a game against the Lotte Giants, he blasted his 43rd homer of the season, a 410-foot shot over the rightfield fence that set off a national frenzy. Lee's blasts are front-page news throughout South Korea. In addition to publicizing Lee's taste for eel, the media have revealed such personal tidbits as the fact that his face turns red when he consumes alcohol, which he does rarely, and that he turns his salary, equivalent to $93,000 this season, over to his mother, who then gives him a monthly allowance. Also, when Lee wanted to buy a car, his father told him an automobile could be misconstrued as a sign of self-importance. Said Dad, "When you need a car, I will buy you one."
In some ways the six-foot, 194-pound Lee is more Babe Ruth than Big Mac. Like the Bambino, he began as a highly touted pitcher. He signed with Samsung out of high school four years ago, but the lefthanded Lee needed surgery on his pitching elbow in January 1995. During his rehab the team worked with him on his hitting and then kept him in the lineup all season. Lee did so well at the plate (13 homers in '95) that he was turned into a full-time hitter. Although he has struggled of late—he recently went 12 games without a homer—Lee had 49 through Sunday and needed seven more in his remaining 12 games to break Sadaharu Oh's Asian single-season record of 55.
Though his contract ends after the 2001 season, he brushes off talk of bringing his bat to America. "I dream of playing in the United States," he says, "but I still have a long way to go."
The Grass Looked Greener
Two seasons ago an injury-prone longtime member of the A's refused to entertain Oakland's offer to discuss a contract extension. He went on to make it clear that when the A's traded him, he wanted to be dealt to the Angels or, if that wasn't possible, to another winning franchise.
Through Sunday, Mark McGwire and the Cardinals were 63-68 this season. Anaheim was 51-78.
Oakland was 71-59.